Archive for December, 2010

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Beijing’s Ugly Duckling

December 18, 2010

Dai’s egg-dwelling

By Paul Nash, Contributor

Dai Haifei, a 24 year-old architect, has been ordered to remove his new home from Beijing’s streets.  Dai built his giant “egg” house on wheels six months ago, after graduating from Hunan University and going to work in Beijing, because he couldn’t afford to buy an apartment, which he reckons would cost him two or three hundred years’ wages.

He parked his egg, two months ago, beneath a tree across the street from his office in Haidian District, a northeastern suburb that Time magazine once dubbed China’s Silicon Valley, the key to its future and a “celebration” of the country’s “ability to change itself and become, once again, great among nations.”

There isn’t much that is grand or high-tech about Dai’s egg-dwelling.  Inside, there is a small bed, a water tank and an electric lamp powered by a solar panel on top.  The shell is an eco-friendly bamboo and wood framework, standing two meters high, covered with rough gunny sacks filled with fermented wood chips and grass seeds.

The seeds would have sprouted next spring, adding a welcome layer of insulation to the unheated pod, had municipal authorities not taken notice.  After seeing Dai in a local media interview, urban management officers did some head scratching and decided the egg was an “illegal residence” and promptly ordered it out.

Dai built the egg with less than $1,000, borrowed from his cousin.  His inspiration came from a concept called An Egg Laid by the City on display at his firm’s biennial design exhibition.  It seemed a practicable solution to the shortage of affordable housing for the city’s burgeoning migrant worker population.

The son of a construction worker and an office cleaner in Shaoyang, Hunan Province, Dai is what locals call a dream-chaser.  He is one of several million rural migrants who have flocked to Beijing in recent years looking for work, staying in the big city without a legal residence permit.  Many are content with inexpensive lodgings in outlying villages, but Dai obviously isn’t the typical migrant worker.  The money he saves on rent has allowed him, he says, to experience what his parents have never really had: a “petty bourgeoisie lifestyle.”  For Dai, this means hanging out in Beijing’s trendy cafés or periodically enjoying a sauna.

No one seems quite sure what to make of Dai’s egg.  Some dismiss it as a publicity stunt sponsored by the firm he works for.  Others are sympathetic to the way in which it speaks to the capital’s deepening socio-economic problems: the high cost of housing, wage disparities, a ballooning population, heavy pollution and the marginalization of migrant workers.

Dai’s egg certainly adds a bit of comic relief to these worries.  It is becoming evident, though, that what it symbolizes is hatching into an ugly duckling, a political quandary for a government struggling to bridge the nation’s widening economic and social divides, trying to find ways to transfigure this duckling into a swan gracefully.